Band War: Attempting Armageddon on the Jersey Shore
"Battle of the Bands...Saturday...at Hooligans...Long Branch, NJ..."
Grow older, and you start to lose your facility with languages, with idioms you used to take for granted?whole continents that you used to bestride in your freedom and glory, swaggering in your boots, grow savage to you, and incomprehensible. They revert, at least as far as you're concerned, to their original sullen unchartedness. Maps grow blank again. Civilizations devolve back to the void, and you gaze at their wilderness shores with wonder and distrust and envy of their innocence, like the first scurvy, louse-ridden sailing Portugee, gazing over the gunwale of his boat at the horrifying nova terra of a fresh continent.
Sat in a bar called Hooligans, down in the littoral slum of Long Branch, NJ, two weekends ago?Long Branch is a ways down the shore, a little north of Asbury Park?and knew that (zoom, just like that, over) I had reverted to a variety of ignorance, that I'd lost part of my tongue, and my ability to conceptualize certain cultures. It happens. I'm approaching 30, so I'm right on schedule. It was mid-afternoon, the shades were pulled, and scrawny kids, touchingly inelegant as only kids can be, were playing the punk rock for each other. Discrete groups of these children?they are called "bands," in the idiom of the tribe?assumed the stage. They played to the afternoon emptiness of this slum-suburban bar.
"Hwwwaaaaagh!" they sang, and "Bwwwwwwwwurgh!"
They gestured fiercely.
Featuring Ex-Ripping Corpse Members, Dim Mak...Featuring Original Incantation Members...Their Farewell Show!! Disciples Of Mockery. Do Not Miss It!!"
With similar nostalgic wonder and incomprehension must the converted Augustine have scanned the Roman poetry of his sinful youth.
The bartendress was a towheaded and openhearted wench.
Blaaaaaaaaaaaaagh, went some kid from the stage. Huhhhhhhh, moaned another.
Then the noise just as suddenly stopped. Kids disengaged their equipment, trucked amps offstage in the silence, whispered together in secret, gentle and possibly innocuous conspiratorial circles.
In which we confront the limitations of the youthful urge toward extinction: Zuuuuuuuuuuuuuuung! shudders the p.a. system, fazing the babyhair along the back of your neck.
Kid down the bar snuffles with pleasure, lights cigarette, leans back in stool, tucks bare knees up against the edge of the barwood, drags at a Camel, squints out a stoney grin from under bleached-blond locks and ballcap, scratches at shoulder, claws at thigh under baggies, sucks beer foam, snuffles, adjusts balls, rubs snub nose with open palm.
A line of beer flexes down into the kid's glass, blooms into fractals of foam.
"Hey, man..." he says to me.
"Why aren't you drinking a beeeeeer, man?"
Bvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv! hum the speakers.
"Well, yeah," he responds. His good-natured face bunches up and his head cocks puppyishly. "But, like, why aren't you drinking a beer?"
Up on stage a kid's soundchecking his bass, filling Hooligans with fuzzy bottom-end. There's still no one here. A band called Red-Eye Flight, which consists of five adolescents with many of the right things going on (an appropriately scatological sense of humor, a NOFX cover), had played already by then?I had watched them from behind the bar and my turkey burger, one of the few spectators in the place, wanting, like a virus, to morph into more beings than I actually was, out of respect for these kids' effort. Effort is always a moving thing to see in kids?it's such an act of faith, of optimism that things are actually worth doing, which isn't apparent when you're 16?and now the equipment was being changed over for the next act, and someone was dicking with the sound system.
Still, the kid at the bar?he was 21?was wrong to ask me why I wasn't drinking. He should have been quicker to forgive his elders.
"Fuck, dude," he told me. "Fuck that. I almost got in two fights last night. Wait, no?like, three."
You will learn to pace yourself, son.
"I haven't even gone to sleep yet, man."
Someone should write a sociology of the American littoral Nowhere. A sociology of the lives of kids in shore towns, whether the huge ocean shores or the arguably more human ones of rivers. It would be about the bait-and-switch that puts you both in the middle of nowhere and literally?littorally?at the edge of something, from which point you're doomed to the contemplation of expansive vistas, beckoning distances, of sightlines across water and down rivers, of (psych!) excruciatingly promising glimpses of Another Way, of some redemptive, terrifying other way that exists and unfolds beyond your own lame, shitty, tawdry suburban or small-town dispensation?which dispensation is, in general, after all just another term for the difficult phenomenon known as youth. Kids stoned on Mississippi riverbanks, for instance, gazing south at the yellow smudge in the humid sky of St. Louis or Memphis or New Orleans. Or, analogously, sitting with legs dangling with beers on that old cantilever bridge upstate in Poughkeepsie?speaking of great littoral slums?gazing downriver toward the promise of the city, at the other side of those gloomy Hudson River reaches familiar to barge pilots.
Downtown Long Branch is damaged. It's bad-trip town, and you feel its rotten energy and charisma as soon as you get off the train there, as soon as your body interpolates itself amidst its geography, adjusts to it. The H-bombed streets with the ramshackle houses on the tree-lined blocks, empty except for the kid with the pitbull and the stump-headed mendicant, wandering in his retardation, celebrating what he proclaims to the heavens as his birthday, lolling on the trashed lawns of the churches, dodging buses, the sort of stocky retarded man who could beat you silly, and maybe wants to, because he's alone, and it's autumn on the shore, which is a killing, lonely time on the shore, especially when the shore is a slum. On Long Branch's Broadway most everything's closed except the five-and-dime and the consignment shops, and some other nowhere shops, and the immigrants wait for buses on streets flash-frozen in amber at some point in history, perhaps during the Ford administration. There are empty salons, places of the sort where you could buy a lousy wig if you had to?if you had to ride a bus somewhere in secret, at night?and beauty shops that sell mops and rat poison.
Walk east and within blocks you hit the huge, depopulated strand, and beyond that there's the empty beach, and beyond that the horizon and the autumn sky. Dogs worry the trash barrels. Like so many other towns I've known in this sooty, amber Old America that spreads secretly out from the Imperial City?in the Hudson Valley, in Jersey, on Long Island?Long Branch resembles a madman's experiment, a testimony to a culture's weird geographical imperative to marginalize centers and encenter suburban margins.
Skinny kid up on stage holds his bass, in baggy jeans and with a bright, pop-eyed face alive under his widened-out mohawk. Thumps at his overtaxed bass like he was trying to split atoms with it, which, perhaps, being a child and perhaps an artist, he is in fact attempting to do. The instrument's close to the point at which it will shed sparks, the way he's going at it?like a child beating on a radiator with a hammer. These guys?Red-Eye Flight?play the pop punk, the death metal, the AC/DC riffs, the phallic, inelegant, ultimately lovable let's-hear-it-for-John-on-the-drums! Cozy Powell/"Moby Dick" stuff. The bassist peers out from the stage into the middle distance. I got the impression that you could have wiggled your fingers in his face?or hit him full-on with a gravel shovel, smack!?and he would merely have registered the gesture as a neutral phenomenon of reality, taking no offense. Such is the cost, or the glory, of being immersed in the brutality of your art.
"Okay everybody, put your hands together for?"
Polite applause from the bartendress, from the several dudes sitting at the bar, from the other bands assembled in front of the stage, waiting to play.
Red-Eye Flight played music?tight music?what kids can do that I couldn't do when I was a kid constantly amazes and moves me?and then the song ended fast, in a crashing halt.
Thuck thuck thuck?a finger hammered on the mic.
"Can we have a little more...volume?"
The amplified voice of God responded from the soundboard: "You can't go screaming into it and expect it to?"
Embarrassed: "All right. Um. Okay... This song's called 'Jacob's Bladder.'"
A muscular, kind-looking, shorthaired Italian-looking kid in a wifebeater took the stage, joining the band. He held a microphone near his hip and bopped around to the music, wearing on his face a sweet smile.
Then, on cue, he doubled over like he'd been kicked in his stomach, cupped the mic to his mouth and omitted death-metal effusions:
"SATAN'S MINIONS/THE CORPSE OF DEATH/CANNIBAL DEMONS/UNTO THEE, DARK MASTER/THE BLACK RESURRECTION."
Though the point is that with this sort of singing the guy could have been saying anything. "Hrghruw hrghruw hrghruw hrghruw"?or perhaps he was singing "La Donna è mobile."
And then, his work done, the boy jumped offstage again, reassumed his gentle smile, and seated himself near the bar with his friends?certainly not one of them was old enough to drink?while his bandmates fell back into the pop punk like a coin drops into a slot. Death metal and pop punk?it was as if a Wagnerian storm cloud had parked itself for about four and a half minutes over Huntington Beach.
What if they had pulled it off? What if they had effected some new suburban musical syncretism here? And made some new serpent slither out the Hooligans front door into the bright light of this slum October?a beast that would undulate down this tweaked Broadway toward the ocean, consuming as it went, growing exponentially as it did so, eating the whole town, infrastructure and sewer pipes and all, before writhing into the ocean to expire, its mission complete?
Instead, Red-Eye Flight had done fine. They'd played the pop punk, the death metal, the AC/DC riffs, the phallic, inelegant, ultimately lovable let's-hear-it-for-John-on-the-drums! Cozy Powell/"Moby Dick" stuff. They'd performed a campy version of that Tom Green song about feeling your balls. And it's certain that they'll get a little older. And maybe they'll become more inclined to blast a hole in the world, or hurt themselves trying, which is what they should have it in mind to accomplish. More inclined to attempt that act of world-shaking will that they have coming to them, as part of their birthright. As part, in fact, of their duty as youths.
"Let's hear it for Red-Eye Flight!" called the guy behind the board.
Sparse clapping riddled a silence as profound as that autumn sea, in which the worm drowned, down the street.
The kid at the bar deprived his beer pitcher of his attention, cupped his hands around his sneering mouth and delivered a solecistic version of the inevitable:
"Aaaaaaah! You guys should be called Never Get a Record Label!"
"Haaaaaaaaaaaah," laughed his friend.
Actually, I felt like trash. I'd awoken that morning with just a couple hours' sleep after an obscene night?which is to say, the night of the yearly party at the Puck Bldg., a singular institution that one is wise to approach with apprehension. Prodigious horrors had emerged, as they do every year, from the ballroom's shadows. That party's like a video game: a deathmatch played out under high, gloomy ceilings, in the same way Syphon Filter takes place within its own nightmare architecture. Thousands of undead haunted the ballroom's darkling plain, which was punctuated by signal fires, which may or may not have been nothing more than the coke-reddened noses of the assistant editors of the magazines.
And there screamed out of the darkness coke-emptied monsters and other beasts from the depths of the fantasy gamer's imagination: rat-faced gnolls; bog gremlins; evil gnomes; skullgons; teleporting drows; horks; displacer beasts; swarming kobolds; fang slimes; draks; gulpbeasts; skeletors; wood trolls; manticores; zombies risen from the dead, bearing in front of them?in some infernal parody of priests bearing in procession down the aisle the banner of Our Lord?their own gloomy cenotaphs; stinking, berserking sewer goblins with their carapaces half-rotted off, their organs exposed, carrying machine guns, wearing bandoliers around their chests, locking and loading as they howled and chased The Protagonist (armed only with his broadsword, enchanted shield and stolen Belt of Elf Virtue) out toward Lafayette St. The only thing missing was torches attached to every column, smoking with pitch. Bugbears, giant dungeon serpents, lizardflies, all manner of prodigies and coughings-up from the depths of hell, appear in your line of vision and swear at you, and tell you to fuck yourself, and riddle you with imprecations?who are these people??and you either shmooze or run or fight, a 2-D superhero leaping and cavorting in so many pixels per inch. I drank shit I thought I'd long ago sworn off drinking, and talked to the wrong people, and was found at times in places in which I should not?should not?have been found. I turned into a mule.
But I awoke after several hours' troubled sleep and stumbled toward the subway and Penn Station and New Jersey Transit early in the morning, needing to void myself, seeking a redemptive new geography, and to be scoured clean, I guess, by the idea of kids and the innocent noises they can make. The fact that these kids were making noise on this afternoon, on this slum block, indicated to me that in some perhaps implicit way they had mastered a loose-jointed, jangly, fluid way of living in the world, a way predicated partially upon an acceptance of loud sounds and social imperfection and dissonance and nowhereness and wrecked shore towns and, above all, human frailty and weakness, and of the fact that, if you're alive, you're always already on the edges of things. Such would be a generous view of the world that implies that you can make noise and scream and hammer on guitars and waste gorgeous afternoons in dark bars in lame towns, and in many ways be dopey and young and loud, and stay up too late and talk shit and drink too much and turn into a mule?and that you'll grow out of it, if you want to, and if you put some effort into it, and you'll be able to accept yourself, and that it's all right, that with a little faith everything's going to be just fine.
I guess what I mean is that these kids might have represented to me, in an oblique way I myself don't fully understand, a model of forgiveness, of forgiveness of yourself and forgiveness of others, and of faith. And forgiveness, especially, is something I can use these days.
There were four bands on the bill that day, and I stayed for two more after the first. The whole affair represented an eerie experiment in stamina; for that matter, an experiment in light deprivation. A "No Reentry" sign on the door ensured that. So there we were, stuck like barnacles in a hold. After three hours I took to rising from my stool, whether a band was onstage playing or not, and looking longingly out through the interstice between the shade and the windowframe, just to orient myself and reaffirm that I, like the morning glory, am mildly phototropic, and, all things being equal, would rather incline toward the light than not. Throughout the afternoon the bar filled up little by little. From the original 15 or 20 people who had watched Red-Eye Flight, the number swelled to 40, 50, 60. Because Saturday night was coming, wasn't it? It was time to go out, wasn't it?
Clean-cut kids started arriving in groups of two and three. Gals in campus sweatshirts, fellas in Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts and baseball caps, everybody hanging out in the back of the room, a friendly, familiar, extremely sweet high-school tribe. A middle-aged woman arrived. Someone's cute toddler bopped around behind the bar.
Meanwhile, a band called Root Philosophy had claimed the stage. This was the day's conscious, political act; if they don't screw things up for themselves, maybe they'll take over the world. The singer was a dark child with hiphop trousers, a cafe au lait complexion and long black tresses. He fronted, crucified himself, moshed solo, threw his head back in moody ecstasies, crouched on the stage, turtled, pulling his head in underneath his hair, obscuring himself under his huge black overshirt.
"Hi, we're Root Philosophy from South Orange," he intoned, "and we're here to entertain you. But maybe sometimes you'll hear the message behind the songs and we might just enlighten you."
Yo, yo, yo.
"Enlighten me!" hollered some wiseass.
Man, but the kids backing this guy could play, though. The guitarist: a shorthaired Asian kid in glasses?but he could play. The bassist: a shorn-headed skater-looking kid, nonwhite variety?but he could play. They produced powerful, moving, moody metallic noodling, above which their Shelleyan vocalist keened on his Zack de la Rocha trip, darkly preening.
"That was 'Stupid Kid,'" he muttered. "This song is 'Lost.' The meaning of the song is?"?lids half closed?"?questioning the existence of God. Questioning whether he exists. Or if he did exist, where did he go?"
The guitarist exerted himself with wah-wah and flanger. Really though?these kids were stupefyingly tight. Still, their radical arts-kids affectations weren't quite appropriate for a weekend Shore afternoon.
"This next song is, uh...oops...string popped. Oops. That sucks. How many people know how it feels to lose a string?"
A stagy cry emerged from the thickening adolescent crowd: "Oh my gawd!"
The brilliant Asian guitarist changed his string while the singer warbled gothically.
"Hey, break out the karaoke machine, it's better," sneered a kid down by the bar. "Heh. The smoke-a-roachie."
The bar's stereo kicked in to fill the silence. Under the circumstances, this was an indication of this actually quite admirable band's defeat.
"We ready? Okay, we're ready," the singer was finally saying, looking expectedly at his guitarist, who was now tuning up.
From the crowd: "Heh. I wish you guys were sweet, but you're not!"
"Okay, our website?. We got some tapes. Five bucks?"
Demoralized, I rested my head on the barwood.
"They should be free!" someone screamed.
A lazy fly circulated in the tenebrum, buzzed the televisions, which flickered with Saturday football, portals to the world behind the gunwales of our swart and manacled ship.
I stumbled to the bathroom. Someone had ripped the soap dispenser off the bathroom wall, chucked the air freshener into the toilet.
?"I got good news," a fresh-faced kid announced. It was later now, and a tense, expectant, energy filled the room, akin to that generous, communal energy that laces the atmosphere before a sporting event. "I passed my drug test."
Secret C, who are apparently local favorites, were to play next.
"How'd you do it?" the fresh-faced kid was asked.
"I peed in a cup."
"How'd you do it?"
"I peed in a cup."
"I mean how'd you pass?"
"Oh." Beat. "I didn't have drugs in a while."
Down at the other side of the bar, my young friend with the bleached hair rose in his stool, towered over his beer pitcher, and crowed angrily: "C'mon! We need sweetness! 'Cause everybody's sucked so far!"
Things were getting a little weird. The front door kept opening, admitting symphonies of disorienting light, but also?and this was weirder?incongruous family groups: middle-aged matrons in sweatsuits and guys in Giants jackets; children in self-conscious pods; grandmothers redeemed from kitchens and neighbors' parlors and bingo halls. Secret C, it seemed, had invited the family. It was quite wonderful. A fine, low-key intergenerational barbecue slackness informed the bar. Tykes writhed and cackled on the floor. Old folks stared in silence. Fathers in their weekend leather jackets, Reeboks and Devils caps gazed benevolently at the suspended televisions, or into the middle distance, mellow and blissed-out with Saturday afternoon.
Bass-popping thumped from the p.a. as Secret C set up. An entourage of young girls milled around vaguely in the stage area. The energy mounted. A portly round old guy with a shorn head and huge smile wandered laughing through the crowd, goosing us all up to chant with him: "J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!"
We screamed, we laughed, we hawed. We chanted, laughed, moaned, wiped the backs of our hands across our mouths. And then the stage lights flared up and Secret C, which consists of five very tight and disciplined and very athletic-looking young fellows, began to play.
"You guys better be sweet or you're gonna get your asses kicked! You better be sweet!" an incorrigible in the audience screamed, unperturbed that he was surrounded by the musicians' extended families.
"J-E-T-S!" Secret C's singer chanted in imitation of his audience as his guitarists?one of whom was phenomenally good?screamed into things. Awwww...
But it was too much. The shred-guitaring and the biceps and the guitar faces and the adoring great-aunts in the back of the room?there was an overdetermined, rehearsed seamlessless to the band's act, a denial of the interstices and margins in which a kid can hide. But interstices, margins, secret places are in the end what this sort of thing?playing this music in some bar in a shitty town on a fine afternoon?is all about.
Staggered into the street, where it was early evening in Long Branch, right near the tracks. The sun howled downward. It seemed advisable to be accounted for by dusk. Walked through residential streets toward the ocean, and met, near the strand, a hiphop kid with a dog, lollygagging in the midst of a desolate street.
"I ain't gonna hurt you, man," he laughed, pointing to a rain-smeared white clapboard boardinghouse. "I just live down the way."
I bought the year's last slurpee from a boardwalk hut, and headed for the train.
The size of that ocean in October, though?it's too much. A kid could set his Marshall stack up on the boardwalk, with the ocean behind him, its huge energy invisibly supporting him, propping him up. Could aim his amp heads toward the town's geographical center and play one long, scouring chord: on E, say, something big and loose and resonant. Perched out there on the empty strand with the guitar around his scrawny chest, his technology behind him?the sea empty, and the sky empty, and the boardwalk and the town; and the amps are the looming gnomon of the declining sun. Plays his chord?
And it's the loudest thing in the world. The roar diffuses itself, screams against the oblique rays of evening light. The sound's killing, and the kid hunches his skinny shoulders against the force of it. G-forces flex his spine, stagger him forward in his sneakered feet as if there were at his back the biggest wind in the world. Rivulets of sand sift down the empty beach toward the waterline, and signage rips from posts to flip into the sky. Trash barrels whip into orbit and seagulls caught in the blare flutter into infinity like gum wrappers in a windstorm.
And the town just crumbles under the noise. Glass busts from the windows, clapboards peel from the bungalows, roofs fly on oblique sound-borne trajectories up into the stratosphere. Bit by bit the town's corrupt architecture's ripped from its foundations and blasted outward?outhouses and garages flip down the streets like tumbleweeds, and even the brick buildings are doomed. Blasted into perdition, and building stones and cinderblocks whine horizontally through the air under the force?a world of dust, a horizontal tornado, a cleansing aural wind, a gigantic cleansing and act of hygiene.
Fuck it. When he's done there's not even rubble left. The whole town's razed. The virgin land huddles unto itself, satisfied, waiting for next spring, so that it can start over from scratch. Fuck it.
In the calm after the storm, in the razed and purified landscape, liberated dogs celebrate, writhing, exploring trash heaps.
Or at least that's the way it should work; it's the mythology of the thing.
The author would like to acknowledge the help of a number of fantasy gaming websites in gathering the names of the monsters used in this piece.
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‘Picture of the Year’ on view
A crusader for cats
Map shows empty storefronts
A quarter-century of service
Clad in red, making a difference
Visual haikus at the Whitney
DOT ignores input on bike stations
Chelsea, under a wide lens